Cheltenham: Rachael Blackmore’s Honeysuckle wins Champion Hurdle

Horse trained by Henry de Bromhead becomes first mare to win back to back

Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle won the Unibet Champion Hurdle for a second year in a row at Cheltenham on Tuesday and even by festival standards got a reception for the ages.

The eerie behind-closed-doors silence that greeted their groundbreaking victory in 2021 due to Covid-19 was replaced by a raucous outpouring of popular acclaim from a full house at Prestbury Park.

Much of it was to do with the unique place Blackmore and her partner have secured for themselves in public regard.

The 8-11 favourite’s 3½-length defeat of the 2020 champion, Epatante, extended her unbeaten record to 15 races.

In a feverish atmosphere, Blackmore was once again coolness personified, navigating Honeysuckle from the outside to chisel a slot next to her market rival Appreciate It at the second last and then kick clear.

Epatante, the other mare in the field, was the only one to mount any sort of challenge but after the last it was clear that Honeysuckle would be the first mare in Champion Hurdle history to win back to back.

At that point, crowds denied their annual Cheltenham pilgrimage last year seemed determined to make up for lost time by trying to roar the roof off.

From an Irish point of view it’s hard not to think at least some of the roaring was rooted in relief.

Starting the week brimming with confidence after last year’s unprecedented dominance, any presumption of a repeat was rocked by the first three races going to the home team.

Honeysuckle was the first of Ireland’s outstanding favourites but there was a brief moment when a looming Epatante looked determined too to be part of any “new normal”.

It hasn’t been just the festival’s “old normal” for the last three years that Honeysuckle wins; no matter what the challenge, or the location, she finds a way to come out on top.

It has become her trademark and if in the immediate aftermath prices as low as 8-13 about a Champion Hurdle hat-trick felt ridiculously premature she is always the one to beat wherever she goes.

"I thought Epatante was going to come and do us," admitted Honeysuckle's trainer Henry De Bromhead. "But we dreamed of her getting a Cheltenham welcome and she's got it."

Mix Blackmore’s singular status with Honeysuckle’s unbeaten record and they now rank as one of the most famous partnerships in racing history, up there with even Pat Taaffe and Arkle.

Lucky escape

The fluctuating fortunes of this hardest of games got underlined in the very next race when Blackmore was lucky to escape a horrible fall from Telmesomethinggirl at the penultimate flight of the Close Brothers Mares Hurdle won by the English outsider Marie’s Rock.

By then however the sport’s most famous face had once again delivered when it counted most.

“I’ve never felt an atmosphere like that. There wasn’t a moment’s silence. It’s just an amazing crowd. It’s easy to say that when you’re winning but it’s a very special place and to hear those cheers was very special,” said Blackmore after her 10th festival winner.

“She’s an incredible mare. She decides in a race when she’s happy to go on. I haven’t stopped her from doing that yet!

“She always finds a way, she really does. I was kind of wider than I’d like everywhere, and maybe wasn’t as happy halfway round. But I just slotted in and we got our gap then. It was fantastic.

“Jockeys dream of getting on good horses, but she takes that to a whole new level. She’s special, she’s once in a lifetime, and I’m so lucky to be riding her,” she added.

De Bromhead, whose stable had been under-par at the start of the New Year, had the look of a relieved man but also one unsurprised at his top horse delivering once again.

“I did feel the pressure more with the build-up. The dream result was her winning with Rachael and the crowd being back here to give her that roar,” he said.

“She is incredible. I’m always trying to prepare myself for it to end but she just keeps winning.

“It is brilliant [that she has become the people’s horse] and it is no more than she deserves. If all the goodwill and ‘good lucks’ could win you a race she would have won by a furlong.

“Most people here were willing her to win. The support we get with her is just mental,” De Bromhead added.

There have been 24 other Champion Hurdle winners trained in Ireland during the race’s 92-year history.

Some of them, Istabraq, Hurricane Fly and Monksfield, generated public acclaim that shook Cheltenham’s foundations too.

None however prompted a response to eclipse the one given to the reigning champions, Honeysuckle and Blackmore.